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Three Men and a Baby: Menander's The Girl from Samos

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Professor D. Wilson






1. Menander redivivus
2. Menander's Athens
3. Menander's comic stage: New Comedy
4. The Girl from Samos
5. For further reading

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Menander redivivus

"O life and Menander! Which of you imitated the other?" (Aristophanes of Byzantium, on Syranius' Hermogenes 2,23)

Now Aristophanes is neither pleasing to the many nor endurable to the thoughtful, but his poetry is like a harlot who has passed her prime and then takes up the role of a wife, whose presumption the many cannot endure and whose licentiousness and malice the dignified abominate. But Menander, along with his charm, shows himself above all satisfying. He has made his poetry, of all the beautiful works Greece has produced, the most generally accepted subject in theatres, in discussions and at banquets, for readings, for instruction and for dramatic competitions. . . For what reason, in fact, is it truly worth while for an educated man to go the theatre, except to enjoy Menander. (appended to Plutarch, Mor., X [853-54] )

Despite the accolades of ancient critics, Menander's work was virtually lost to us until papyri containing scenes and parts of scenes were discovered in the early years of this century. Perhaps the most fantastic find (1959) was a papyrus containing almost a complete play, heretofore unrecovered, "The Grumpy Old Man" (Dyskolos).

The modern response to Menander has been somewhat less enthusiastic than that of the ancients. Menander's art, however, can best be appreciated by setting it in the context of Menander's Athens, rather than by comparing his comedy directly to Aristophanes'.


Menander's Athens

385 BCE

Aristophanes dies


Menander born


Philip II of Macedon victorious in decisive battle: from now until absorption into the Roman Empire, Greece is dominated by Macedonian rulers.


Reign of Alexander III of Macedon


An Athenian revolt was put down by Macedonia; one of the effects of the subsequent dismantling of democracy in Athens was the abolition of the fund that subsidized theater tickets for citizens.


Between 315 and 309 (dates debated) Menander produces The Girl from Samos


Menander dies

So. . . .

How does Menander's Athens give us insight into Menander's comic drama?

  • The assembly of citizen males, to which old comedy directed its ridicule and useful advice, no longer existed as a significant decision-making body that governed Athens' international affairs. Thus at least part of Old Comedy's reason for being crumbled.
  • The abolishing of the fund from which tickets were provided probably altered the clientele of Menander's theater so that fewer of the citizens of lower social status were in attendance.
  • Whereas it had been relatively safe to aim ridicule at public figures in democratic Athens, it was not at all clear that it was prudent to aim ridicule at Macedonian generals.
  • The phenomenon we call Hellenism, itself a cultural synthesis, ushered in a more cosmopolitan spirit, an emerging sense that one was a "citizen of the world." [NB Moschion's statement that impinges on citizen birth: "For heaven's sake! What's legitimacy or illegitimacy? We're all humans, aren't we?"]


Menander's comic stage


  • political satire
  • primary interest is public realm & conflict
  • to inform and give useful advice (public)
  • outrageous solutions to problems
  • dramatis personae: 'dêmos-guy' and larger-than- life fantastic figures
  • obscenity, ridicule, abuse
  • chorus regularly central, addresses audience
  • complicated meters
  • padded costumes and masks
  • social commentary
  • primary interest is domestic realm & conflict
  • comment on ethics of private life (??)
  • problems resolved through personal relationships/ interaction
  • dramatis personae: stock characters readily identified with different social classes
  • "comedy of manners"
  • chorus detached from plot
  • meter similar to spoken language
  • street clothes and masks

  • intended effect on the audience: to make them laugh
  • festive drama
  • violation of dramatic illusion
  • generation gap exploited
  • exploit tragic plots and conventions (especially Euripides)
  • subversive attacks (overt or understated) on social conformity


The Girl from Samos


  • Prologue spoken by Moschion sets up the domestic conflict that will lead to a comic series of misunderstandings on the part of the three men about the baby.
  • Dialogue between Moschion, Parmenon, and Chrysis: characterization of Moschion as hesitant, Parmenon as bolder, and Chrysis as kind and convinced of Demeas' love for her.
  • Dialogue between Demeas and Nikateros: reveals that the wedding arrangements are already agreed upon.
  • By the end of the scene, we the audience have all the details to enjoy observing the humorous--and nearly-but-not-quite-tragic--series of misunderstandings involving the three men upon whom the marriage, and the meaning of the baby, depend.


  • Demeas' "partial" discovery leads to a potentially tragic situation that is defused by Moschion, who "sticks to his story" rather than claiming his son.
  • By the end of the act, the dilemma set up in the prologue appears to have been resolved, without revealing the intrigue.


  • "In the midst of a fair voyage, a storm can suddenly appear from nowhere. . ." (207f)
  • Demeas' further 'discoveries' (overhears the nurse and sees Chrysis nursing the baby) lead him to infer, wrongly, that the baby is Moschion's and Chrysis'.
  • Demeas attempts to exact the truth from Parmenon, who at first sticks to the story agreed upon; when Demeas says he knows the "whole truth," Parmenon admits that the baby is Moschion's. He fails, however, to admit to the intrigue, thus reinforcing Demeas' false inference.
  • Here Menander's comedy flirts overtly with tragedy, all the while keeping it firmly ensconced in its comic setting:

    • "O citadel of Kekrops' land, O vault of heaven on high. . ."(326f).
    • Demeas reasons that Moschion has cleared himself of the guilt of sleeping with his father's concubine (which amounts to incest) by his eagerness for the upcoming marriage; therefore Chrysis, that HELEN, that trollop, must have seduced Moschion. She will have to go.
    • An Athenian audience could hardly have missed the allusions to Euripides' Hippolytos, nor would the ironic inversions have escaped them (he sides with his son instead of his concubine, his son is in fact the seducer; cp. the inversion of Helen as the rapist!).
    • The tragic scene in which Demeas throws Chrysis and "her" baby (whom we know to be his grandson) is penetrated with comic interruptions by the cook


  • Revelation of the facts behind the events--an essential condition for a solution to the complexities of the plot in the spirit of comedy--finally takes place as Moschion admits his deed and the intrigue to his father.
  • An even more extreme and comic variant of the tragic theme developed in Act III is reenacted by Nikateros when he finds HIS daughter nursing the baby.
  • Demeas calm Nikateros' frenzied anger with comic deployment of a mythic theme: Zeus' penetration of Danae's prison (and of Danae) in the form of golden rain. Think! Does any part of your roof leak?" (390f).
  • All is ready for the wedding; the conflict known to the audience has been resolved and the audience expects the ceremonies to begin. But Menander has a surprise in Act V.


  • Menander transfers the conflict within the household from the erotic relationship to the one between father and son, bringing the filial relationship to light as the chief interest of the drama.
  • Moschion delays the wedding, for which he has been so eager, in order to punish his father for thinking Moschion would have sex with Demeas' concubine. He pretends to be preparing to run off and "join the army."
  • The relationship between father and son is restored through personal interaction; Demeas gently corrects Moschion for disgracing him publicly, when he himself had tried to protect Moschion from disgrace.
  • An appeal is made to the audience for favor, and the play dissolves in a festive procession, mirroring the festive context of the performance.

Some closing comments and questions for further consideration

  • This is not a love story; the love story provides the humorous incident for a story about the relationship between an adoptive father and his son. [On the adoptive relationship, my thoughts are that it serves primarily to highlight Demeas' character as kindly and to enable the narrative details of the play, but is not social commentary on the institution of adoption per se.]
  • Think about the effect on an Athenian audience, perhaps primarily male, watching Demeas misjudge a situation and condemn an innocent female of unrestrained sexual behavior, when in fact "we" know her to be innocent and his son to be guilty of rape. How might such a scene interact with other poetic traditions and with gender roles and expectations in 4th century Athens? IF New Comedy does indeed engage in social commentary, do you think Menander is affirming or contesting traditional views on relationships between the sexes?
  • The tension created by Demeas' relationship with a non-Athenian emerges as an index of the generation gap between father and son. Moschion thinks the whole question of "legitimacy" is foolishness, what is important is that "we" are all human; Demeas, on the other hand, seems committed to the polis values inherent in citizenship by birth. How might the "new" notions of cosmopolitanism have contributed to the generation gap between Demeas and Moschion?

For further reading:

Arnott, G. 1975. Menander, Plautus, Terence. Oxford.

Sutton, D. 1993. Ancient Comedy. The War of the Generations. New York

Walton, J. 1994. Aristophanes and Menander: New Comedy. London.

Walton, J. and Arnott, P. 1996. Menander and the Making of Comedy. Westport, CT and London.

Wiles, D. 1991. The Masks of Menander: Sign and Meaning in Greek and Roman Performance. Cambridge.

Zagagi, N. 1995. The Comedy of Menander: Convention, Variation and Originality. Bloomington and Indianapolis.

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